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One year ago this weekend, a wall of water came ashore in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami killed tens of thousands of people and set off Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident.

One year later, Japan is still learning more about what really happened. A recent investigation shows the country narrowly averted an even worse nuclear disaster. The government withheld vital information from the public during the crisis, and that news puts even more pressure on a government facing brutal criticism.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn starts our coverage in Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The commission was organized by a civic group called the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation. The commission's chairman, Koichi Kitazawa, explains that the radiation released from the Fukushima nuclear plant came from the meltdown of three reactors.

But spent nuclear fuel rods at a fourth reactor were also at risk of leaking radiation, or even exploding. He says that that could have put Fukushima on a par with the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986.

KOICHI KITAZAWA: The level of leakage of radioactivity reached about one-seventh of the Chernobyl case. But it could have been almost the same as Chernobyl if these spent fuel rods started leaking.

KUHN: If that had happened, he says, and if the winds had been blowing south instead of east, the consequences could have been unthinkable.

KITAZAWA: If it happened, then the prime minister's office thought that they have to think about evacuation plan of more than 30 million people in the capital area.

KUHN: Kitazawa's commission obtained a secret report on this worst-case scenario prepared for then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The commission drew the conclusion that the government must bear the primary responsibility for the nation's nuclear safety.

But current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said recently that by law, the main responsibility lies with the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima plant.

PRIME MINISTER YOSHIHIKO NODA: (Through translator) I would say that the government, the plant operator and the academic world were all steeped in the myth of safety. Rather than saying whose responsibility this is, everyone should instead share the pain and responsibility.

KUHN: Kitazawa says that over the past half-century, nuclear power companies and regulators have created a myth that nuclear power is absolutely safe. And, he adds, you can't adequately prepare for a disaster that you don't admit can ever happen.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee has launched its own investigation. Lawmaker Tomoyuki Taira says that when his committee asked TEPCO for information on its plant, it received only a few redacted documents.

TOMOYUKI TAIRA: We asked them to reveal the manual of the plant, and TEPCO gave us that manual, and that manual was blacked out. Every line was blacked out, because this paper is classified.

KUHN: Taira says the only way to find out the truth about what happened at Fukushima is to nationalize the plant. He calls for a rethink of the country's reliance on nuclear power.

Some observers see in the Fukushima disaster a failure of governance. Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says that inept crisis management is not unique to Japan, but...

ROBERT DUJARRIC: The Japanese state is actually weak. It's weak in the sense that the ability of, in this case, a central government to impose its will on other actors - regional governments, cities, public utilities - is limited.

KUHN: The government's handling of the Fukushima crisis has further eroded public trust in Japan's civil servants, but Dujarric says in the past six years, no Japanese prime minister's approval ratings have lasted much more than six months before collapsing, anyway.

As the politicians debate, Japan's energy policy remains in limbo. Jesper Koll, director of research at JPMorgan in Tokyo, notes that operations at all but two of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors have been suspended, but it's not yet clear what will replace them.

JESPER KOLL: Here we are a year later, and we are still seeing absolutely no clarity on even the basics of a new, forward-looking energy policy. Unfortunately, that's not the Japan that's going to be a global, leading economic powerhouse.

KUHN: Prime Minister Noda says that his government will propose a new mix of energy sources this summer.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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